In her opening remarks at the Religious Education Congress 2013, Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast reminded thousands of participants that this is a “time to go deeper into our faith.”For 40,000-plus Catholics from around the Southland, the country and the world, the annual gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center came at a significant and opportune moment in their lives of serving a church that has faced serious challenges in recent weeks.Indeed, for these Catholics, their participation in Congress was an opportunity to share and strengthen their faith, to encourage and draw encouragement from others, and — even in the penitential season of Lent — find hope and joy in their service to the church.Like Maria Guerrero, 23, a youth leader at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Rowland Heights. “I’m an active Catholic in these challenging times to live out the purpose for all of us — to know, love and serve God,” she told The Tidings as she waited in the English Confession line on Feb. 23. “I try to live it throughout my everyday life, even in the career path I’ve chosen to take and in youth ministry. I just try to keep faith a part of everything.”Her fellow youth leader, Joseph Aquino, 30, agreed.“Personally, what drives me is that I truly feel that the Holy Spirit is leading the church, especially through difficult times,” he said. “Through the most difficult times, we are able to give a light to people who really need it. It’s a time to be stronger in our faith, our actions and our love for one another. With the scandals and media coverage, sometimes it can be very discouraging, but it’s events like these that try to fulfill and refill us.”Dorla Marquis-Forbes, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Tujunga, said she is an active Catholic “simply because I love the Lord so much. I’m always striving to be closer to him and learn more how I can be a better person and how I can truly serve him.”One of the youngest attending Congress, 21-year-old Tuan-Anh Nguyen, a junior literature and philosophy student at UC San Diego who helps out with children’s liturgy, declared that his faith was tied not to a person or an ideal or even a tradition.“The reason I am a Catholic is because I’ve experienced it,” he said. “It’s not simply the faith of my parents or my culture anymore that I’m a Catholic. I’ve dug into it and really sought after it because I want to call myself a seeker of truth, and I think that’s what God places in the heart of every single person — to seek truth and seek after Him.“I’ve felt God in my life and in my soul, and that’s what really keeps me Catholic in all this cultural turbulence of hostility toward Catholic teachings or the multiplicity of so many different world views. You’ve got to seek understanding intellectually about what the church teaches. Through prayer and through community of more experienced Christians and Catholics who walk the walk and help me see and feel God, I’ve been able to do the same.”Father Rob Galea, a 30-year-old singer/songwriter priest from Shepparton, Victoria, Australia, who gave Youth Day workshops on discernment and sang with the Liam Lawton choir at the Celtic Mass Feb. 23, echoed Nguyen. “I think [my faith] comes out of experience for me,” he said. “It’s not about religion but it’s about relationship. I believe that the biggest source, the biggest means to perfect this relationship is found in the Catholic Church. This is why I am a Catholic because I can live my life and my faith to the full through Jesus in the Catholic Church.”‘Our faith is universal’Congress’ international flavor was evident on opening day, with a multicultural gathering prayer that drew enthusiastic participation from a capacity crowd in the Convention Center Arena. The enthusiasm carried many through to the Sunday closing liturgies, celebrated by Orange Bishop Kevin Vann and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez.Litzy De Cortizo, a college English teacher from Panama, said she “finally” made it to Congress after hearing for years from friends in her parish in Panama that it was worth the trip to California to get “updated on Church catechism” and “how to really build the Church, learning from others.”“I am leaving very impressed about how much encouragement you get here and can clearly see that our faith is really universal. I’m leaving very encouraged and joyous,” said De Cortizo, who most enjoyed a Saturday afternoon workshop on restorative justice. “I will make sure to share what I have learned this weekend with my family, friends and fellow parish members in Panama.”Isaac Demase, a 24-year-old Catholic high school teacher from Australia, called Congress “absolutely fantastic,” noting that its large scope “illustrates our Catholicity. We’re brothers and sisters of a universal church, and it’s a beautiful reminder of that. It’s an amazing event to be at and, hopefully, I’ll get back one day.”In her opening remarks Feb. 22, Sister Prendergast — director of the Office of Religious Education which presents the event — welcomed people from around the U.S. and overseas, including Australia (40 high school students from this country attended Youth Day Feb. 21), England, New Zealand, Kenya, the Philippines, Ireland and from all over Latin America. And with all events in the Arena live-streamed, Sister Prendergast made a “shout out” to her family in Ireland, to the delight of the audience.Alluding to the Congress theme, “Enter the Mystery/Entra al Misterio,” drawn from the Sunday Scriptures (particularly the Transfiguration), she noted that “We enter the mysteries of our deepest yearnings. God calls us to wake up and be alert; something important is about to happen.” She described the current events in the Catholic Church as “a pivotal moment in our faith history. Like Peter [in the Transfiguration story], we have an instinct to cling to the moment, but we have to give it away; love and compassion need a home. “Life is a mystery, full of tests and trials,” she added, urging the people to “discover glimpses and signs of God in the stories” they would hear throughout the weekend.Then she posed a question: “Will we open our eyes and heart to recognize God dwelling in us?”She encouraged people to pray. “Prayer unmasks,” she noted, and paraphrasing Mark Twain she invited participants to “explore, dream and discover,” and to pray for the cardinals who will soon elect the new pope “that they may have hope, and dreams for the future.”Applause resounded throughout the Arena when Archbishop Gomez read a message sent to Congress participants from Pope Benedict XVI.“Catechism and formation is essential for the new evangelization,” said the pope, who urged the Church to “explore the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.”Grateful for the pope’s message was Lillian Gatchalian, administrative assistant at St. Basil Church in Vallejo, one of about 100 members of St. Basil who attended the event, including 55 youth at Youth Day.“Jesus is always here,” she said. “I want to educate myself and be part of the community.”‘Guard against mediocrity’More than 300 workshops and more than a dozen liturgies (including Masses and prayer services) were featured at Congress, as well as a multitude of afternoon and evening entertainment events. The “selfless support” of 463 volunteers — including groups of students from Loyola Marymount University, Mount St. Mary’s College, and the UCLA and USC Catholic Centers — and the work of the ORE staff was essential to making Congress run smoothly, said Sister Prendergast during her remarks near the end of the closing liturgy Feb. 24. The liturgy’s prayers of the faithful included all the people hurt by members of the Church. Archbishop Gomez encouraged prayers for Pope Benedict XVI — whom, he said, he considers a saint — as well as for the universal church, for Cardinal Roger Mahony and for the College of Cardinals.“Life is a journey,” said Archbishop Gomez during his homily, which was sprinkled with calls to an “ongoing conversion that begins when we are baptized.”“We cannot afford to take faith for granted anymore,” he said emphatically. “The world is changing and it makes us believe that faith doesn’t matter. Resist this temptation. We need to guard against mediocrity in our Christian life. We need to strengthen our faith, be committed, which will help us change the world in which we’re living.”Citing the Gospel reading, he said God not only reminds us “who Jesus is, but also who we are.” He used Dorothy Day’s story to exemplify conversion, adding that Pope Benedict had used her example in his last Ash Wednesday liturgy.Archbishop Gomez summarized her story of conversion from “supporting Communism to becoming a radical witness to God’s life for the poor. All things are possible for us and God wants us to be saints, holy, and inspire others to be holy, too.”Just prior to blessing the Elect before their dismissal, he offered a final thought. “Love is the cross and transfiguration is a necessity,” he said. “Conversion is based on the fact that we are all God’s children.” It was a message that resonated with those in attendance.“I’m an active Catholic in this time because things happen in life, but the Church is still here, and it’s going to be here,” said Patti Abeyta, 51, from Blessed Sacrament Church in Westminster. “I take great comfort knowing that we’re going to get through our difficult times and emerge stronger.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0301/congmain/{/gallery}